Most video games allow you to play as an unstoppable killing machine that can mow down dozens of puny enemies with ease. Horror games, however, are different; they tend to feature weak heroes that must simply try to survive with limited resources. Nothing makes a game scarier than a feeling of extreme vulnerability; although terrifying sights and sounds, spooky atmospheres and disturbing stories can certainly contribute as well.
This list features games that excel in all of those categories. For maximum effect, be sure to play them at 3AM with the lights out:
10. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Eternal Darkness tells an epic story that spans over 2000 years, as a dozen different characters try to stop an ancient and evil power from conquering the world. Along the way they’ll explore dark temples and creepy old houses, and encounter a variety of nightmarish creatures.
While the scope of the story and the game’s chilling atmosphere are impressive, Eternal Darkness’ most famous feature is its sanity effects; as your character encounters horrifying sights their sanity starts to decay, and that leads to weird things. You’ll see blood on the walls or enemies that aren’t really there, or the game will mess with you more directly by changing the volume on your TV or pretending to erase your save game file. If you’re not a huge video game fan, just trust us on this: there’s nothing that will shock a gamer more than the prospect of an accidentally deleted save game.
9. Dead Space
Dead Space is, as the name implies, set in space, where word on the street is that no one can hear you scream. You’ll be playing it in your basement though, so try to keep the noise down or anyone who lives with you will think you’re a wimp.
To be more specific, the game is set on a giant mining ship that has sent out a distress signal and you’re part of the rescue team that’s been ordered to investigate. You soon discover that every crewmember has mutated into a violent monster. When most of your team is killed it’s up to you to rescue the dark and claustrophobic ship while aliens jump out at you from every corner. It’s tense, bleak and immersive, thanks to a superbly designed setting and some truly creepy audio.
F.E.A.R. is only number eight on this list, but it’s number one on our upcoming article about least creative game names. The title is an awkward acronym for “First Encounter Assault Recon,” a special ops branch of the US Army that deals with paranormal threats. You play as a new member of this team during an investigation into a facility where research into telepathic powers has gone wrong.
Heavily inspired by Japanese horror films, F.E.A.R. drops a creepy little girl into the middle of an otherwise standard first person shooter. She spends the game toying with you, popping up every now and then to taunt you or force you to experience unpleasant hallucinations. Wondering when she’ll show up next keeps you on your toes, to the point where it becomes draining to play for more than a couple of hours at a time. The contrast between being able to gun down most opponents with ease, only to be left helpless in the face of a little girl, is remarkably effective.
7. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Dark Corners of the Earth is inspired by the work of famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and it faithfully recreates several of his most famous settings and creatures. You play as a private detective who’s been given the job of finding a missing person in the shadowy town of Innsmouth, an investigation that soon turns into an encounter with evil cultists, sea monsters and several ancient horrors.
To make matters worse, you’re forced to sneak through most of the game; enemies can easily overwhelm you if you’re spotted. And, much like in Eternal Darkness, you need to maintain your hero’s sanity. Expose him to too much horror and he’ll start to hallucinate, suffer from schizophrenia, and even kill himself. Nothing makes a game more nerve-wracking than being forced to listen to your character babble about how he has no hope of surviving.
6. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Condemned has you playing as a crime scene investigator who’s been framed for a double murder. You try to prove his innocence by tracking down the serial killer who was really responsible, a process that involves a mixture of crime scene analysis and beating homeless people to death with rusty pipes.
Don’t worry, they had it coming; they all turned into violent psychopaths for no apparent reason, which is another mystery you have to solve. And that’s part of what makes Condemned so scary- the brutal, hand to hand combat is genuinely unsettling. Factor in some tense exploration of dark and dreary abandoned buildings and all together you have a rather disturbing experience. Oh, and Condemned also managed to give us a lifelong fear of mannequins; watch the video clip to see what we mean.
5. Penumbra: Black Plague
No, this isn’t a game about the actual black plague. That would just be depressing. Instead, you’re exploring a ruined research facility where all the staff have either been killed or turned into zombie-like creatures that are looking to make a meal out of you.
Black Plague is ostensibly an adventure game, as you progress by exploring and solving a variety of puzzles. Unfortunately, it’s tough to crack riddles when you’re worried by the prospect of a monster jumping out and ripping your face off. You can fight back, but you’re weak, so you’re better off avoiding conflict. Luckily, there aren’t a lot of monsters, but that’s actually part of what makes Black Plague so scary. There are just enough enemies to keep the tension running high while you explore the mysterious setting, and you know that if you’ve been safe for a while then there’s trouble coming soon.
4. Siren: Blood Curse
Siren tells the story of an American TV crew that’s come to Japan to do a report on a legendary “missing village.” They discover it, but they also discover that it’s full of bloodthirsty zombies. Think of it as a Discovery Channel show gone horribly wrong.
You control several different characters over the course of the game, and they range from “guy who can use a gun but can’t find much ammo” to “unarmed little girl.” Therefore, you’ll spend most of your time skulking around and trying to avoid monsters. And believe us, you’ll want to avoid them. Siren features some of the most gruesome creatures we’ve ever seen in a video game. To make matters worse, you get to see through their eyes: whenever a monster closes in on you you’ll get a glimpse of their perspective, which is especially terrifying when they’re looking straight at your hiding place. Or when they’re eating your face.
3. Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly
Fatal Frame 2 is a game starring two little girls (do we even have to tell you it was made in Japan?) who get lost in a forest and find themselves trapped in a foggy village populated only by angry ghosts. Playing as a vulnerable child is a daunting prospect, but unlike Siren you at least get a weapon to fight back. No, it’s not a vacuum cleaner or a proton pack; you’re equipped with an ancient and powerful… uh, camera. Crap.
OK, so it’s a special kind of camera that can kill ghosts. Unfortunately, it’s only effective at close range (apparently the ghost slaying telephoto lens hasn’t been invented yet). So you’ve got to get personal with the deceased in order to take them down, and you better not run out of film in the process or you’ll be in serious trouble. Combined with a weird Japanese ghost story and a very creepy setting, Fatal Frame 2 is easily the most frightening camera based games out there.
2. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Everything we said about Penumbra also applies to Amnesia (the two games were made by the same developer). There’s just one key difference: you can’t fight. At all. When monsters show up your only option is to run away in fear, hide in the shadows, and pray they don’t find you.
Story wise, you play as an amnesiac (bet you didn’t see that coming) who’s woken up in a dark castle. All you remember is that you’re being chased by something; it’s up to the player to explore the castle and figure out what’s going on. It sounds simple enough, at least until you discover that the castle is one of the scariest game environments ever created. Every dark corner and closed door might have a monster lurking behind it, and that’s a terrifying prospect for a player that has no means of defending themselves. Oh, and did we mention that your character is going insane?
1. Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is the thinking man’s horror game, which means you’ll be scratching your head as you attempt to unravel the plot, at least when you’re not busy screaming in terror. The hero of the game has come to the foggy titular town at the behest of a letter he received from his supposedly dead wife. He discovers a woman that looks just like her, yet she claims to have never met him. He also discovers a lot of monsters.
The town of Silent Hill is spooky in its own right, but there’s psychological horror at work here too. The enemies are designed to reflect the main character’s fears and flaws: for example, deformed nurses with skimpy clothes and suggestive poses represent our hero’s sexual repression and objectification of women. This leads to some very weird foes, as well as one of the most shocking scenes in video game history: a monstrous stand-in for all of our protagonist’s sins decides to get, um, forcibly intimate with some of the more feminine creatures. Moments like that are what makes Silent Hill 2 a landmark in both the horror game genre and our nightmares.